Although The Felice Brothers are from New York’s Hudson Valley, they got their start playing in the subways of New York City, a comfortable hour and a half drive from their pastoral origins. Listening to their music, you wouldn’t think they lived within ten hours of a bustling metropolis like the Big Apple. Led by the accordion and guitar of brothers James and Ian Felice, respectively, their affecting folk songs are as pure, authentic and down to earth as they come.
The group recently released God Bless You Amigo on their website, an acoustic album of some of their favorite folk standards and previously unreleased original compositions. You can pay whatever you like for the album ($5 minimum), and the proceeds will go toward funding the band’s next official full-length release.
We recently caught up with James Felice from his home in the Hudson Valley to talk about how God Bless You Amigo came about, the band’s recent run of bad luck and why he was drawn to the accordion.
You just released God Bless You Amigo, which is a kind of compilation or mini-album of songs you recorded in September. How would you describe it?
James Felice: I’d call it an album, I guess. Mini album is a good word. It’s definitely not a follow-up to Celebration, Florida. It’s its own thing. Mini album, I like that. Micro album.
You recorded the songs earlier this spring and you’re selling it through the band’s website. Where did the idea come from to put this together and put it out online?
Felice: We had gotten home from a tour, one of the long tour we were on. We started practicing again and working toward a new album, and then all of our shit broke. Ian’s amp broke and then Josh’s bass amp broke. All of our equipment was broken, so all we could do was play acoustic. We started playing all these old songs that we used to play all the time, like old fiddle songs and such. And it sort of grew out of that. We had a really good time playing all these old soul songs, and also songs that we had written that we never got to record. So we decided, yeah, let’s record as many of these as we want and just put them out. We didn’t want to deal with a record label, so we just put them out on our website and we saved a couple of bucks doing it.
And it’s available on the website in a pay-what-you-want format, with the proceeds going toward your next proper full-length album…
Felice: Exactly. We’re going to take all the money we make from this and try to put it toward our next record. Louis C.K. has that thing where it’s $5 for an amazing comedy album. Why not spend five bucks on something?
What happened, then, with the hurricane and your Winnebago getting destroyed?
Felice: It was two separate but equally upsetting incidents. It was about a year ago, I guess, that our studio and my house got destroyed by Hurricane Irene. All of our gear got wrecked. All of our stuff got destroyed, basically. The only thing that survived was the Winnebago, which was parked on a hill. Then we went on tour and the Winnebago died and we had to leave it behind.
Just put it out to pasture…
Felice: [laughs] Yeah, we loved that stupid bus. We had it for six years. On every tour we ever did it was our home. Even when we weren’t on the road people were living in it.
Have you replaced it?
Felice: No, we were just renting tour vans for the shows we’ve been doing this summer. We don’t know what we’re going to do yet. We’ve got to figure it out.
You’ve had some bad breaks the last few years, but you have to have found all these experiences pretty creatively inspirational, right?
Felice: Absolutely, yeah it’s great for us creatively. In the grand scheme of things, it’s bad luck, but it’s not awful. We’re still a band. We still have our friendship and our families. We’re fortunate that everything’s okay, but it was sort of a rough year. We learned some lessons and we learned to appreciate the stuff that we have and not treat it like shit.
You guys recorded your last album in a library and theater of Beacon High School in New York and you’ve recorded in a converted chicken coop. Do you guys seek out these unconventional spaces on purpose? What do you like about recording in these types of places as opposed to a more sterile studio environment?
Felice: Well, yeah, the chicken coop was our studio that got destroyed. But I guess the area that we live in, the Hudson Valley, is just full of old buildings that are occupied, so it’s easier to find places that seem cool and unique. Like the old high school, we weren’t thinking, oh, we have to find an old high school to record in. It’s just sort of something we happened upon. There are so many beautiful spots to make a studio in the Hudson Valley. But we’ve never recorded in a real studio, really. For our next record we might try it out just because we’ve never done it before. It might be something that’s fun. Every record is it’s own little micro adventure.
You play the accordion. How did you start playing it seriously? I feel like a lot of people might pick it up for a while but then dismiss it as a kind of novelty.
Felice: I picked it up because I had to. I played piano, but when we were playing in the streets a lot … I didn’t have a piano. There were no pianos. There was no electricity. So the accordion was the closest thing to a piano. I initially didn’t like it because it’s hard to play, but I like it now. I try not to [emphasize it too much] because it kind of has a grating sound and I’m not the greatest accordion player. But it has a cool flavor and I think it’s kind of been part of our band’s sound since the beginning. It seems to fit in with us.
What is the plan in terms of your next album, then? Have you written a lot of songs? Do you know when you’re going to start recording?
Felice: Yeah, we’ve written a bunch of songs, we’re still writing them now and hopefully we’ll be able to start recording in the fall.